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Odd Topic for a Christmas sermon...

Posted Dec 20 2009 2:29pm
Sometimes it is difficult to be a scientist and a Christian at the same time.
It's not that Christianity is incompatible with science; that's not just false but really the opposite of what I see. The existence of a universe that's perfect for life--for that matter, existence itself, that there's something rather than nothing, but something impermanent and subject to entropy--seems to make sense to me only if there also existed someone outside space-time, with extreme intelligence and extreme power, who sparked the universe. While pure science can't lead us to God, it does tend to point in that direction.

However, if there's one thing the scientific mind knows, it's that you cannot prove anything--ever. You may have a p-value of .00001 (and if you do, I envy the accuracy of your equipment and/or the size of your sample); but you will never have a p-value of zero. There's always a chance that your experiment is invalid, that your hypothesis is incorrect, that you need to go back to the drawing board or re-design your experiment.

Arguments for and against God are mostly the realm of philosophy, not science, because science can't work with anything that can't be measured. Mathematicians juggle infinities all the time; string theorists deal with dimensions we can't imagine except in mathematical terms; but when something doesn't obey the laws of the universe, how are you supposed to put it in a test tube?

Well, of course, you can't. And that's my problem. I'm a scientist; I want to test everything. When I test things, I want to know what probability I have of being wrong. I want to turn life into a controlled experiment wherein I know the numbers and know the odds. I've even made decisions by assigning numerical values and probabilities to the possible outcomes.

Enter... Faith. Defined, faith means acting on something you can't prove. Faith is difficult for scientists. We tend to say things like, "Well, there's a high correlation..." and, "We've showed that it's very probable that..." and hedge our bets until the odds come so very close to 100% that we call it a scientific law and build other ideas on it. Never, though, 100%. Achilles never overtakes the tortiose, so to speak. Scientists teach themselves never, never to assume the 100%, even when it is a scientific law, because those laws have been overturned before and may be overturned in the future.

There comes a point, naturally, where it becomes silly to always take into account that an idea with a high probability of being true may in fact not be true; we assume that gravity works a certain way, that chemical bonds act the way we describe them, that natural selection does indeed determine which organism passes on its DNA. We've simply seen it so often that we can skip over the last tiny p-value and assume fact. That is as close as science can come to faith.

I have mentioned before that I have always had a great degree of existential anxiety. Lately, the trouble hasn't been the probability, small but real, that an afterlife does not exist; what's really been bugging me is the idea that it's impossible to tell whether or not it does. I've often been annoyed that God tempted us with the offer of eternal life, because it's hard to tell if you're in it just because you want said eternal life, or if you really want to know God.

Our inability to determine, 100%, if God exists is one of the most annoying, frightening facts of life. The whole concept of Good is dependent on the idea that life has intrinsic meaning, because if there were no intrinsic meaning, then any meaning you determined for yourself would vanish once your neurons stopped firing.

I have literally been fascinated, for my whole life, by stories of people who were able to make the decision to give up their lives for a greater cause; because the ability to make that decision exemplifies faith. The only way that self-sacrifice is logical for someone who does not know for sure that life has meaning beyond just one's own lifespan (and "does not know for sure" here includes even the people who are certain by all but an infinitesimally small amount) would be if the situation were such that the person would not want to live with the results of a decision not to die. Essentially, if you could not be sure that life had meaning, it would not be self-sacrifice, but simple suicide.

"Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend..." Faith and love, and thus Good, go hand-in-hand. The only way a person can be self-sacrificing without also being suicidal is to believe--not just "think probably true", but believe--that life has meaning beyond death.

Why is self-sacrifice so important? Well, it's the extreme expression of a principle that guides many other smaller decisions. We all spend our lives doing something; and we have to make those decisions somehow. Do I try to encourage my neighbor? Do I go out of my way to help my community? Do I do what I believe is right, even when I know nobody will ever know what I did? Do I only do good when I feel good about it; or is there something more important to that decision than how I know I will feel about it?

Every day we live is another day closer to death. Every moment is precious... or every moment is meaningless. If you believed that life had no meaning, you would be free to act according to what made you feel good, whether that were altruism, love, knowledge, revenge, or simple sensory pleasure. If you believed that life had meaning, you would have to act according to that meaning--not as a moral straitjacket, but because that would be the logical way to act. If you are not sure which is the case, though, you hover awkwardly between those two choices.

And that's where self-sacrifice, of the non-suicidal sort, comes in: It's the one decision that can be rationally made only by someone who believes that life has meaning. If you were to doubt at all, the logical decision would be to live rather than die, because the possible outcome of dying in a world where there is no meaning must invariably be assigned a negative-infinity value, overwhelming all other possible outcomes of that choice.

We make that decision every day, whether we are sure of life or not. Someone who chooses to die, chooses to spend whatever part of life they might have had after that point. Someone who makes a decision that does not involve death, still chooses to spend some part of their life. The currency of life is time, and we cannot help spending it.

Back, again, to faith. It is amusing to see the squabbling between different Christian denominations about which one is more important--faith or works? That is, which one really effects salvation--your belief that God wants to make you perfect; or your actions based on your belief? These people are all being really very silly, because faith and works are quite simply inseparable. Asking to see one without the other is like saying, "Well, I want a hamburger; but I don't want any meat, or any bun; and leave off the condiments altogether!" I almost think there ought to be a word that encompasses both, because they are really two parts of a singular thing.

But there I was, still very unsure. Over the last few months, especially (this isn't actually a new thing; it's just lately been more prominent than usual), I have been very anxious because of that uncertainty. Maybe it's because, for the first time in a while, I've truly wanted to live. A long-term struggle with depression will do that to you--you forget just how important life is, and how attached you are to it. But life isn't anything if you don't know what to do with it; and you aren't doing much of anything if you can't make choices. And choices, whether you know it or not, all depend on the question: Does life have meaning?

I have literally yelled at God over this stupid fence-sitting uncertainty. For months, my prayers have been prefaced more often than not with, "Well, if you exist..." and full of heartfelt pleas for some kind of evidence, especially a new logical proof (of which I already have a great collection); for I know very well how statistically-insignificant coincidences prove nothing, and how easy it is for a person to mistake a hallucination for a vision. Eventually I grew so desperate that I said, "I need proof. If you won't give it to me, then please, kill me before I lose my faith. I would rather die than live thinking life were meaningless."

Asking for death when you know you really want to live is frightening; but it's also oddly reassuring. After all, if God didn't exist, he couldn't kill me; and if he did, then I most certainly didn't want to live thinking life were meaningless.

Last night, trying to figure these things out before they drove me entirely crazy, I did something I don't usually do: Instead of asking for some logical argument that nobody had ever thought of before me, I asked for a sign. You know how people will do silly things like open their Bibles and point without looking, hoping to hit on the perfect Bible verse; or take coincidences for messages from Heaven when really they would have taken anything at all as a sign? Yeah, I don't do that much. I know just how easy it is to fool yourself into thinking God is saying just about anything you want him to, and that's no good; plus, it isn't scientific. But, I thought, maybe if I made sure that what I asked for was unusual enough, and unlikely to be a coincidence, then I might make an experiment of it; and I was really at my wit's end. You know it's getting serious when you start thinking, "This is more important than survival."

So what I asked was that, when I went to church today, I would be told by someone--specifically, and without my saying a thing about it, nor starting a conversation anywhere in that area--that God existed (in the specific context of God existing versus not existing). This is an event with a low probability, because I am very introverted and faceblind to boot; so it's difficult for me to remember people well enough to make friends with them. I often leave directly after church and come late, and on days when I'm tired of socializing, may spend the service in the lobby listening to the sermon on speakers. What's more, most of these people tend to take God's existence for granted (or else do not talk much about their own doubts). Our pastor is a traditionalist and the sort to either open up Luke 2 the Sunday before Christmas, or use whatever text he had been coming up to in his sermon series to connect Jesus's birth with the reason he had to be born in the first place. I thought that if he mentioned God's existence in the sermon, it would be in passing if at all.

My estimate of the probability of such an event occurring, during a single Sunday's trip to church, would be about 5%, or one in twenty. That means it should occur about twice a year, which is about how often it has occurred.

Well, God didn't just have somebody randomly mention it in a conversation. He apparently hijacked the entire sermon. The pastor did not follow tradition this Sunday. Instead, he opened up Hebrews 11. Yeah, that Hebrews 11. He proceeded to mention that God did indeed exist, contrary to what some people thought; but that you could not put him in a test tube, nor could you prove his existence scientifically, no matter how much nature nudged you and pointed in his direction; that faith itself, and the things you did because of your faith, was evidence in and of itself. He used the same phrase I've often used--You can't put God in a test tube. He might have gotten it from me, for all I know; I had talked about that very problem to my pastor last summer, when I took the membership class and backed out of actually becoming a member at the last second. His mentioning it in the sermon today, when he would normally have done a Christmas sermon, rather than any other day, on the day I happened to be going to the service rather than the Sunday school (I usually pick one or the other) is still very unlikely.

I didn't believe my ears, at first. Didn't think such a silly experiment was going to work. Naturally, I found myself wanting very much to cry, and wanting very much not to cry, at the same time (an awkward position in the middle of a church service--we are not usually very emotional at church, and I'm no different; I've no wish to make a scene).

So... I had my experiment. Only 5% probability that it would've happened anyway. That's unlikely... doesn't make any kind of ironclad case, but definitely at the point where, if you're sitting in the lab, you're starting to think, "Hey, we're going to get our grant renewed!" (Or, well, in my case, more like "they're going to get their grant renewed"; I'm just along for the ride, thank goodness, and don't have to bother with things like that. Ah, the joys of being an undergrad.)

At the end of the service, I spoke to the pastor and asked to become an official church member. I've been putting it off for a while, not quite wanting to make a profession of faith when I had so much doubt. Today, though, I knew I couldn't put it off any longer, whether or not that 5% probability was staring me in the face.

I know now that I will probably always have to live with uncertainty; but also that doubt is not the opposite of faith. The opposite of faith is more like... indifference. I think I am practically incapable of that.

By the way, I asked the pastor why he chose Hebrews 11 for today's sermon, as it was so odd for Christmas, and he replied, "I have no idea. I guess the Lord just impressed it on my heart." Yeah, I'm kind of guessing he did. In fact, I'm 95% sure.
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